Mackendrick On Film-Making

Review by Willard Manus

Alexander Mackendrick was the director of such classic British comedies as The Man in the White Suit and Whiskey Galore. When Hollywood beckoned he came here and helmed Sweet Smell of Success and A High Wind in Jamaica, among others. But when the studio system and the security it afforded collapsed, he chose to become dean of the School of Film and Video at CalArts, where he taught until his death in 1993. Now the notes, lectures, interview transcripts and drawings he left behind have been assembled into a book by Paul Cronin, ALEXANDER MACKENDRICK ON FILM-MAKING (Faber & Faber).

This is no mere text book, but a wide-ranging, fascinating exploration of the basics of story-telling and drama, acting and directing. It can be profitably read not just by students but by anyone interested in learning what makes a movie tick. Mackendrick opens the creative envelope and invites everyone to peek at its contents.

The chapter on dramatic construction--titled Once Upon a Time--is a case in point. "Strorytelling is the knack of swiftly seizing the imagination of the audience and never letting go," Mackendrick writes. "Digression and elaboration are permissible, but only when the audience is already hooked by the promise of some satisfaction to come. The tension to that hook may be slackened now and again, but the line must be snapped tight at any moment when the dramatist senses the danger of losing his catch. This is why I confess that, in the past, I found it enormously useful during the pre-production of a film, to select someone whose instincts I respected and, rather than giving them the screenplay to read, tell the story out loud to them, even if only in synopsis. By doing this I could get a palpable sense of just where the momentum was sagging, where the action could be telescoped, and how the climaxes should be timed."

Mackendrick then lays out the twelve basic steps of dramatic construction. Anyone can profit from studying them. Even if you have no desire to become a screenwriter, your storytelling gifts will improve remarkably and you will be able to tell why a film seems "slow" or "boring."

Mackendrick is equally helpful and practical when dealing with other aspects of film-making: camera coverage and movement, actor-director relationships, activity vs. action, techniques for coming up with ideas, and so forth. As Martin Scorcese comments in his introduction, "This book--this invaluable book--is the work of a lifetime from a man who was passionately devoted to his craft and his art, and who then devoted himself to transferring his knowledge and his experience to his students. And now it's available to all of us. What a gift."